Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Confined to a hospital ward for the last two of her teenage years, Kaysen learns to value her ability to track the passage of time. She revisits several times her initial diagnosis by a doctor with whom she had never before consulted. Kaysen’s memory of the twenty-minute visit, surely not enough time to condemn a teenager to years of hospitalization, haunts her through adulthood. As an adult, she digs up hospital records to little avail: there are two competing accounts of the consultation. The vast disproportion of twenty minutes of discussion to two years of confinement still haunts her. On the ward, time is marked by the incessant “checks” made by nurses. Kaysen describes the five-minute, fifteen-minute, and half-hour checks as “murder[ing] time,” “chopping off pieces of it and lobbing them into the dustbin.” The pain of time lost in captivity is magnified by its never-ending and maddeningly predictable punctuation. Kaysen becomes obsessed with time, screaming at a dentist who has brought her out of general anesthesia, “it’s my time and I need to know how much it was! . . . I need to know.”
Kaysen argues that to commit suicide, one must practice detachment as a means of tricking the mind into destroying itself. Without the “proper distance,” she argues, the act is too heinous to be undertaken. Detachment is a familiar device for Kaysen and her fellow patients, a kind of armor they don to remove themselves from the reality of their sad plights. Even the constant assault of repetitive thought, a hallmark of mental illness in Kaysen’s conception, becomes “background music, a Muzak medley of self-hatred themes.” Detachment is most alarming when it reveals a person’s total inability to feel pain or pleasure. When Kaysen accidentally pours molten sugar on Georgina’s hand, Georgina has no reaction at all. Even searing pain can’t penetrate the shell of detachment Georgina has constructed to protect herself.
Kaysen’s adolescence coincides with the rise of late 1960s youth culture. Millions of baby boomers (i.e., children born at the end of the Second World War) came of age as teenagers and young adults. Older generations were startled by the abandonment of traditional cultural values by young people, whose unconventional appearance, music, antiwar protests, and psychedelic drug culture were totally alien to them. Kaysen believes that her doctor thought he was saving her from the “drifting, drugged-out, no-last-name youth universe” by placing her in a hospital. To her parents, Kaysen’s rejection of school achievement and a professional career were signs of mental disturbance, not the uncertainty of a teenager in confusing times. Kaysen describes Dr. Wick, one of the physicians at McLean, as “utterly innocent about American culture,” taken aback by frank discussion of sex. To the authority figures in her life, Kaysen and other people of her age were at great risk. The consequences of their confusion and fear for Kaysen were regrettable.